Friday, August 3, 2012

The CW is the future of television. It's also failing.

Why a network that's doing everything right can't attract viewers.

Clockwise from top left: The Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl, Supernatural and Nikita.

Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club recently wrote a pretty fascinating think piece (disguised as a news report about the TCA press tour) that detailed the many ways in which The CW has become a ratings pit of which NBC would be ashamed, despite being the single most forward-thinking of the major networks:
If you were going to create a TV network that catered to the modern TV fan, it would be a network that aired lots of heavily serialized shows that were addictive and engrossing once you got into them. It would be a network that cared less about immediate Nielsen ratings and more about DVR plays and (even better) digital streaming. It would be a network that wouldn’t cancel long-running shows out of nowhere and would, instead, announce that a show was ending, but only after a shortened final season designed to wrap up its plotlines. Such a network would also feature a frequent focus on genre fare, because the modern TV fan likes that sort of thing. Maybe it would air longtime Internet favorite Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog in its television debut, coming up on October 9th. 
Here’s the thing: That network exists. It’s called The CW. It does all of the things above, right down to Dr. Horrible (coming on October 9th). And nobody watches it
If you were to make an argument that the network will almost certainly be the first of the “big five” to die—and sooner, rather than later—no one would argue with you. The CW regularly loses to Univision and several cable channels. It’s not on the same level as the four major networks, and if you’ve ever spent time jeering about how far NBC has fallen, well, most of its shows look like ratings kings compared to even The CW’s hits. Parks & Recreation, for instance, would be the highest-rated show on The CW by a fair margin. The CW is starting from a very weak position, both in terms of ratings and in terms of “buzz,” whatever that means.
Van Der Werff's analysis is solid. He points to the network's strengths: some truly excellent television (The Vampire Diaries being the primary example) and a clear strategy for how to move forward in the era of internet streaming and falling ratings at every network. The CW's exploration of how to make online streaming profitable is the network's single greatest achievement, particularly given increasingly dire predictions about the future of traditional broadcasting. Perhaps most importantly, VanDerWerff discusses the way the network cultivates fan loyalty by giving shows enough time to properly wrap up their stories, in contrast to every other major network (not to mention many cable and premium channels, as loyal Carnivale fans can attest):
Gossip Girl was once the lynchpin of The CW’s schedule, even if its ratings never reflected the level of importance the network placed upon it. Now, however, its ratings have crumbled and left it in dire straits. Instead of outright canceling the series, however, the network is bringing it back for 10 final episodes in the fall, designed to close off the storylines and bring closure for fans. It’s difficult to imagine The CW’s sister network, CBS, doing such a thing for a long-running hit. (It let CSI: Miami go without so much as a “see you later!”) It’s hard to imagine any network doing so, outside of rare circumstances where an outside production studio cuts the network such a great deal to get the show in question to 100 episodes that the network can’t refuse. (See also: Chuck and Fringe.) But The CW has done this twice in two seasons, first with One Tree Hill (which had arguably already had a worthy series finale), now with Gossip Girl.
Where the undeniably excellent piece falls short, however, is in its discussion of why no one watches The CW. VanDerWerff says early on that the network "has never had any idea of how to sell itself to people," but he never gets beyond that assertion. If, as VanDerWerff (probably rightly) says, The CW is "trapped in 2022, where everything you could ever want is instantly streamable," what can the network change to remain viable until their cutting-edge strategy starts to pay off?

The issue, I suspect, is one of marketing. VanDerWerff is right when he says The CW has no idea how to sell itself and its increasingly strong primetime line-up. Looking at the way the show promotes the (truly superb) flagship series The Vampire Diaries, the disconnect between the show as it is advertised and the show that actually airs every Thursday becomes glaringly obvious. The trailers and print ads for TVD exist in a world where Gossip Girl is still king, which leads to ad campaigns that play up the sexy supernatural love triangle rather than the series' propulsive pacing and emotional investment in its characters. While the fourth-season trailer (embedded below) thankfully moves away from GG's overhyped "OMFG" style of advertising, The CW's teen-soap pedigree makes it very, very difficult to get anyone over the age of sixteen to give any sort of serious consideration to one of the best dramas on television, while print ads like this certainly haven't gotten the show any traction among critics or awards voters, two groups whose support could go a long way towards breaking the show out of the supernatural romance ghetto.

VanDerWerff is probably right in his assessment of The CW as a network that "seems to have forgotten that the business it's in [...] is controlled by very traditional models that won't crumble for a while and even then will only crumble slowly." He's equally right when he says that, for a "corporate entity that only exists by the skin of its teeth," the time it takes those traditional models to crumble could very well be a death sentence. The network, however, doesn't have to take its decline lying down. It might be difficult to come up with a branding strategy that works for the current television landscape while simultaneously continuing to plan for a future dominated by internet streaming and social network presence, but if any network can do it, it's The CW. It's not like they've got much to lose.